Making History: Part 2–The Dance and the Kiss

English: Artist rendering of SpaceX Dragon spa...

English: Artist rendering of SpaceX Dragon spacecraft delivering cargo to the International Space Station. Credit NASA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intricate tests completed, the grappling arm of the International Space Station grabbed the SpaceX Dragon capsule, pulled it in, and will attach it (“berthed” it) to the Harmony node of the station this afternoon.

“It looks like we caught a dragon by the tail.” — Don Petit

Only a handfull of large countries have ever performed a docking manuver in space.  China did it last year with its new Tiangong space station.  Dragon has successfully reached a point in its development where it will now claim the prize as the first privately designed spacecraft to acheive this.  Yes, it did have a lot of help (and funding) from NASA.  However, the data on how to do it now belongs to SpaceX, so they are now the goto folks for other private industries needing services which require this ability.  SpaceX has a moving plan on what to do with that knowledge too, and it stretches all the way to Mars.  They have already been working with Bigelow Aerospace to launch and populate Bigelow’s inflatable space stations.  Bigelow needs SpaceX’s new-found docking experience, their soon-to-be human-rated spacecraft, and $1000/lb price point.  SpaceX needs Bigelow’s inflatable environment technology to acheive Elon Musk‘s original goal to deploy a greenhouse on Mars…the whole idea that started SpaceX in the first place.  If NASA is not allowed to fund Dragon’s human rating development through CCDev, other countries will do so through their own funded contracts with SpaceX and Bigelow.  That means that other countrys’ space programs will benefit directly from the much lower cost of commercial crew launches before the U.S. does.  How’s that for leadership?

Speaking of the U.S. government, the tone around the web is that commercial space ventures are starting to care less about what Congress allows NASA to do funding-wise.  But rest assured that even though government is trying to cut its own influence in the new industry by tightening the purse strings, they’ll surely regain that influence quickly enough by taxing and regulating this great idea that they tried to starve to death.

Don’t forget what happened in recent weeks. Many lawmakers say that Commercial Space is a Bridge to Nowhere; what they mean is that it is a Bridge to Nowhere…for them. “Oh, yes…space is cute, but it isn’t worth risking the federal funding of MY state’s welfare programs, entitlements or existing politically influencial industries.” Forget the fact that a new, run-a-way, high-demand, export industry would benefit the entire country and put us on the path of a new, larger, and boundless new-tech revolution. Forget the fact that the investment amount needed for continued support of this revolution is already a razor-thin percentage of the Federal budget, or that it is already between 10% and 50% of the cost of the traditional NASA spaceflight design and procurement process.

They’ll say that budgets are tight, so I say great…let’s spend less by maturing this new, lower cost industry that government will, very soon, not have to support at all. CCDev needs to have the funding that it needs for at least three funded industry players to meet the current schedule. This leaves room for the development of multiple technology paths. Privately designed and owned rockets and capsules will hold the price down and will meet short-term needs and longer-term heavy-lift and deep space needs. Spaceplanes will take longer to develop but will eventually drop the price even further and facilitate short-term, frequent access, jet-liner-like routine scheduling of manned flights to and from Earth orbit.

In the end, a broad, privately owned tech base with multiple independent and interdependent innovation paths will develop that will bring us out of a reliance on the few government-built space flight monopolies and build a complex industry where anyone with a good idea can participate.

SpaceX must now be allowed and helped to move beyond this accomplishment…but they must also not be only company allowed and helped to get this far.  SpaceX’s achievments today prove that competition drives innovation and funding can drive rapid development of technology.  Obviously, we should not just throw money at something and hope that it grows in the future, but when something is obviously growing and carries so much hope for the future then yes, by all means, throw money at it so it can grow faster.

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~ by Bill Housley on May 25, 2012.

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